Where does our mind go when we die?
Answer by Craig Weinberg:
To approach these kinds of ultimate questions about the mind, we must resist the temptation to borrow technological metaphors from the present era to give us a complete picture of the mind. Without knowing the role that consciousness plays in nature, we cannot say for sure that consciousness is like anything else in the universe. We also cannot say whether in fact the mind is “in” the universe that it perceives, or whether what it perceives through the body, and then measured through other instruments is the appropriate context from which to consider the mind.
We cannot, for instance, compare the mind to a computer program, even though it seems like a compelling metaphor, since a computer program does not have any use for video displays, sound cards, fonts, alphabets, etc. Even geometry is superfluous and redundant to software, which is used to perform all computations using only binary digits. This is a critically important difference between information and the mind, as the mind is driven primarily by agendas which are emotional and aesthetic. Software works because it can do nothing else. Minds work because they want to feel better by improving the quality of life. We work so that we can rest and enjoy the fruits of our labor.
Digital information is not literally composed of “ones and zeroes”, it is composed of the physically recorded dispositions of binary-configurable physical bodies, such as switches, valves, nanoscale transistors, etc. By contrast, the mind may not be “information” at all, but rather the capacity to inform and be informed through direct and indirect experience. While we can consider information and data the same thing, there is an important difference. Information implies a pre-established intent to receive and value data. The two terms can be used interchangeably, and even specifying ‘raw’ data still smuggles in an expectation of intelligibility that we should not take for granted when considering physics and metaphysics.
If we think of raw data in a more particular sense that does not include intelligibility or ‘pattern’, but only the physical substrate, then we can say that this ‘data’ is stored physically. If, however, we fail to separate out the physical facts of the data from the capacity to focus awareness on it in a meaningful way, then we have pulled the wool over our own eyes. When we attribute qualities of awareness (grouping, perspective, cause, effect etc) to physics which we have not justified in our theory of information, I would argue that our philosophy of mind succumbs to both theand : It takes our affinity form applying mind-like metaphors to information processing literally, and lays claim to the principle of mind by using building blocks which are prematurely assumed to be mind-like in the first place. When we give elementary particles or bits the properties of mind, the we cannot say that mind emerges from some complex configuration of those properties. True “information” is not literally stored anywhere except in the perspective and expectation of one who values it intentionally.
The question then, of where does our mind ‘go’ when we die may have already assumed incorrectly that minds come or go anywhere. Indeed, all awareness may take place “here”. This leaves open the possibility that while death leaves the body that is “there” without any personal awareness, that may not preclude some residual presence which is eternal or absolute in some sense. This is of course a popular view in most every religion and mystical tradition in some form or another, ranging from an afterlife to a more generic reunion with the divine, but such speculation is probably impossible to separate from wishful thinking.
Contemporary or New Age versions of these concepts borrow from science more respectable beliefs like the zero point field, the law of conservation of energy, or the non-physicality of information, since they point to an indestructible firmament which could theoretically retain our minds. All that we know for sure is that if we ask ourselves if we live forever, we have historically answered yes, and if we ask our bodies, the answer that we get is no. To tip the scales one way or another, it may be helpful to study near death experiences, out of body experiences, reincarnation, and other paranormal claims. If primitive awareness is more fundamental than physics or information, then no amount of physical evidence would necessarily be adequate.
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